A Curmudgeon In Paris



When you think of Paris you think of Danton, Marat and Robespierre, Victor Hugo and Japanese wedding photo-opportunities.

Sadly now you also think of terrorist atrocities and desperate homeless migrant families. To hear a police siren is to become acutely aware of where you are, and there are few sights more heartbreaking than entire families living on the streets of the old Latin Quarter. Add in the blinding disco-bateaux Mouches and the often outrageously bad food and you seem to have a city with an identity crisis.

Except that every time I visit Paris I start by disliking it (the Gare du Nord!) and end up falling in love with it again (Montparnasse, sunset by the Seine, the light!) The islands remain Amelie-perfect, but while efforts go into keeping the centre clean and safe, whole arrondissements are either over-exploited or run-down and to be avoided.

The Pompidou Centre (a building I never warmed to) looks tattered, dated and unsophisticated, Montmartre’s now-total opportunism has now wiped out any vestiges of its former charm and the new Les Halles, with its gruesome yellow roof that leaks rain all over the concourse seem like mis-steps as crazy as the despoliation of Camden Town. Add in the hassles of of the once-charming Clingancourt, the restaurants resting on their laurels that serve overpriced stagnant meals, and you realise that parts of Paris are not what they once were.


There are still true pleasures; the massive range of art exhibitions and galleries, le Marché des Enfants Rouges, the flea-market on the Rue de Bretagne, the pretty corner cafes of Rue D’Orleans early in the morning, the mad Marais, the Seine (of course). But the window in which to enjoy an uncrowded stroll gets narrower.

One thing I had never done, which I did this weekend, was visiting Shakespeare & Co, the legendary ‘Americans in Paris’ bookshop. It describes itself thus; ‘Shakespeare and Company is an English-language bookshop in the heart of Paris, on the banks of the Seine, opposite Notre-Dame. Since opening in 1951, it’s been a meeting place for anglophone writers and readers, becoming a Left Bank literary institution.’ Visited by Joyce, Hemingway, Stein, Fitzgerald, Eliot and Pound, many ex-pat writers slept there. They were known as Tumbleweeds, and three things were asked of each one: read a book a day, help at the shop for a few hours a day, and produce a one-page autobiography. Thousands  of autobiographies have been collected and now form an archive.


It is unquestionably one of the world’s great bookshops – and yet to me (warning; blasphemy approaching) it feels too in love with the idea of being a bookshop rather than providing shelves of exciting books. In the same way that some West Coast bookshops play Vivaldi to remind you that you’re in a palace of culture, the shop suggests cosy literariness without providing much excitement. Its selection of books  on the shelves seems safe, conservative and a wee bit smug.

Here’s the difference; in Oslo, several of us entered a small independent bookshop and we all ended up buying something – the eclectic range was decided by the taste of the stockists, and was challenging and enthralling. John Sandoe does that for me in London, and so does Foyles. In Shakespeare & Co we came out empty-handed. Tourists were buying tote-bags to say they’d been there, which jars. I may be doing the shop an injustice (they still have regular high-profile readings) but the spot now feels more like a photo-opportunity on the tourist trail.

And that’s where the shop and Paris itself share a link. Both appear to exist more in idealised memories that present-day reality. There are still pleasures to be had, but perhaps one has to look a little deeper now. This time we found a 17th century AirB&B atelier with this view, and all the requisites (unusual wiring, artificial flowers, strange shower fittings etc)…


11 comments on “A Curmudgeon In Paris”

  1. jeanette Spice says:

    I will be in Paris in 12 days time staying in the Latin quarter. No disco-bateaux Mouches for me, I have an evening cruise on the seine on a lantern lit old converted dutch barge Le Calife.

    Yes I am sure we will come across Shakespeare & Co on our walks, and of course I will go in, but I get the feeling from research that yes it has become a tourist photo shot.

    I am sure that Paris will indulge me in my love of antique lamp posts!! I know, I just have a thing about lamp posts, London still has some gas lit lanterns.

    You may think this is a “Tourist trap”, but first night I am going on a champagne night tour of Paris in a 1970’s CV2, and am totally excited about this.

  2. Helen Martin says:

    And what incredible price did you pay for that B&B? That’s right in the heart of things.
    I always thought that I could cheerfully visit Paris without seeing the Pompidou Centre and I would be happiest if I could go to the Louvre without seeing that glass pyramid. (Not that I’m likely to get to Paris the way things are.)

  3. admin says:

    It wasn’t cheap, Helen, but it wasn’t as anywhere near as expensive as a hotel, partly because it was six floors up without a lift.

  4. Steveb says:

    Ah well maybe Brexit will send some new money to Paris 😉
    Very true about the restaurants
    I like Bordeaux better reminds me a bit of Brighton

  5. Brooke says:

    First, Vegas. Now, Paris. Are you deliberately taking us through Trump/Le Pen territory, stagnant and full of beliefs of a glorious past? The gigantic lady was right–she need not go to Paris.

  6. David says:

    I lived in Paris 2000-2002 and preferred the second hand bookshops, The San Francisco Book Company, where the owner refused to take in exchange airport editions because their size made his shelves look untidy; and the utterly brilliant Tea & Tattered Pages, alas now closed following the death of the lady who ran it, where I found in the basement a pristine copy of the Penguin Crime edition of Stanley Hyland’s, Top Bloody Secret, and also a well read Echoes of Celandine by Derek Marlowe, both fine reads. The Marlowe book was made into a film, The Disappearance, starring Donald Sutherland, but I seem to remember they gave it a Hollywood ending.

    As an aside, there is an English bookshop in Istanbul which looks as if it has been beamed in unchanged from the high street of some Cotswold market town. It seemed to be very popular, doing a roaring trade at the time.

  7. carri witchet says:

    Wild Chamber and the Easter Egg – “You’ll have to go round and back up to Tooley Street, and then down Borough High Street.” Ah, Tooley Street, the original location of the Bryant and May Provisions Merchant business in Bow, London. Bravo, that was cheeky!

  8. Brian Evans says:

    There is far less litter than London, though.

  9. Peter Tromans says:

    I thought perhaps it was just me. For years, Paris was magic, even the worst parts. For work I used to visit La Défense and its Grande Arche. I always hated the area, but it seemed shiny and clean back in the pre-Euro times, a total contrast to, a sort of equivalent in London, the area around Waterloo and Shell Centre. Nowadays, it’s quite the opposite.

    The last time I was in Paris, so much had changed: the little café on Rue de Rivoli, where all the waiters looked like Jacques Tati and the simplest dish had flavour and style, had disappeared together with so many old haunts. Fortunately, there was still the Marais. And south of the river Café de Flore, with its professors and philosophers and wonderful Welsh Rarebit (yes). And, to top it all, Kristin Scott Thomas walked in and sat next to me. To be fair (to Miss Scott Thomas) it was about the only empty seat in the place, but still an old guy can dream … and forgive Paris for all it has lost and love it for all it still has.

  10. admin says:

    I think it’s a good idea to run checks on cities and see how they change. Paris is wonderful, of course, for the rich – but that’s true of most cities.

  11. Helen Martin says:

    I keep coming back to that photo of the restaurant with the lighting, the neighbourhood, and the waiter in his long apron. That picture would fit any time back to the Victorian era and with a minimum of cropping would make the most stunning mood piece. Lovely indeed.

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